'Honey, I have to have a beat'
When Peggy Rose was born, a few pennies could buy a loaf of bread, a half gallon of gas or a ticket to a movie matinee. The elegant 86-year-old, however, has stretched a few pennies into a lifelong singing career and a small-time gambling habit that she proudly calls her only vice.
"Pennies from Heaven" is her signature opener when she performs on Monday nights to adoring crowds at the Wild Goose Cafe and Bar in Ashland. And on Friday afternoons, she's at Lava Lanes in Medford with her son, Michael Robertson, playing the penny slots.
Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.
On Friday morning, Rose was inside her Medford home, singing softly but with the swing of a seasoned jazz performer. Her tiger-striped, dangling earrings swayed in rhythm with her voice.
Don'tcha know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?
She smiles, considers the link between the joy she gets from pacing those lyrics and from playing the slots. She confesses that she can string out her $10 betting budget for hours and has only lost it completely twice in her life. Then she sings again:
You'll find your fortune fallin' all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is ...
She pauses, then stretches out the ending:
Up. Side. Down.
Appreciating her good fortune, she says: "Look at me. I'm 86. I can walk, talk, sing and swing. To me, that's everything."
She is nestled in a cushy recliner with a pink afghan blanket draped behind her, but she rises every few minutes to demonstrate the way she sings a song. Her fingers snap with the beat, her body moves side to side, her blue eyes are bright. "I'm a big blob of swing," she says.
The self-taught singer has been performing jazz standards in large and small venues across the United States since World War II. She usually auditioned by singing "Pennies from Heaven" because it quickly showed that she was an all-around singer who could pull off jazz, ballad, folk, you name it. But she prefers swing and she says, "to me, jazz swings more than other types of music."
She stands up for emphasis. "With jazz, there's an extra you have to give."
Her late husband, Ron Robertson, was an accomplished drummer who performed with Spike Jones and Louis Prima. After the couple moved to Ashland in 2003, they found swing soulmates at the Wild Goose, especially with owner Dal Carver.
About five years ago, Carver launched the Singers Showcase Hosted By Peggy Rose, now a Monday night open-mic tradition in which a trio plays live for a stream of singers. Rose begins the show at 7:30 p.m. and usually ends it around 10 p.m. or so.
"She's a terrific singer," says Carver, who plays piano in the Singers Showcase Trio with Mike O'Malley on drums and Dave Miller on bass. "She's like a force of nature. When she starts singing, the band swings twice as hard and she has the crowd in her hand. She's a born entertainer and a born singer."
He adds that she doesn't have a big voice or an impressive range, "she just knows how to make music."
When Rose first heard Carver would be her piano player, she said she was nervous. But all tension was broken at the first chord. "He's a swinger, too," she says. "I enjoy every minute I've been at the Wild Goose."
She says that some musicians can play the notes, but they just don't evoke the right feel. "If you're stuck with that, it's hard to get through it," she says.
But Carver plays "muy primo," she says, and she feels grateful for others she has met over her career who also have that talent. "Most of the time, musicians swing their butts off," says the attractive octogenarian who peppers her remarks with mild profanities.
But she does recall a tiny club in the mountains somewhere where she heard the piano player pounding out her intro. She stands again and uses her voice to imitate the sound. She remembers she stopped him from playing by saying to him, "Honey, I have to have a beat."
Peggy Rose was born Margaret Rose Levinson on Dec. 12, 1925, in South Bend, Ind. But she officially changed her name to Peggy Rose after she graduated from high school and went on the road to make a living as a singer.
"In my opinion, 'Margaret' is an old-fashioned name," says Rose, whose hair — a natural mix of auburn and silver — is chic and short, and frames her expressive face. Over the years, she has worn her hair in a range of styles, from spiky platinum to dark brunette.
Today, she is wearing a long necklace with interlocking black, gold and silver chains that lap over a black-and-gold lame tunic top. Sleek black pants meet snappy black ankle boots to complete a look that Rose calls "simple but showbizy."
She has always been energetic, she says, and has endured a few physical ailments, but she can't remember them specifically. "Oh damn it," she says. "The only thing I can say bad about being 86 is my memory is shot."
Says son Robertson, 46, of Jacksonville, the youngest of her six children: "She's open. She's passionate. She's a people person. It takes us an extra 20 minutes to leave a restaurant because she'll talk to everyone."
She explains her crowd-pleasing performances: "It's just inside of me. I can feel what the audience is waiting for."
Her advice to beginning singers: "There are so many ways to start out, but if your joy is taking a melody and interpreting the words in a certain type of music, sooner or later, you will run into people who like what you do."
She pauses. "If you really love it, stick to it."
Then she stands and sings again:
If you want the things you love, you must have showers
So when you hear it thunder, don't run under a tree
There'll be pennies from heaven for you and me
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.